When Albert Perri was discharged from the U.S. Army almost 50 years ago - after, according to family lore, a chance meeting with singer Elvis Presley while Perri was stationed in Germany - he began working in the heating and air conditioning industry.
In 1971, Perri elected to branch off in that industry on his own - working out of his garage and getting administrative help from his wife, Linda. Today, that one-time "mom-and-pop operation" has grown into A.J. Perri a Tinton Falls-based company with a satellite office in Fairfield that has more than 230 service trucks and nearly 400 employees.
And while "mom and pop" have transitioned into semi-retirement, the business remains a family affair. Son Kevin Perri, 49, manages the company, while siblings Albert Jr. and Michael also have worked for the operation. Kevin says his three oldest children already have served internships at A.J. Perri, and he hopes to make it 4-for-4 this summer.
"This may sound corny, but it made a real impression on me as a kid seeing a plaque in my father’s office that read, 'Rule No. 1: The customer is always right. Rule No. 2: If you think that's wrong, go back to Rule No. 1,’” Kevin Perri said in a recent interview. "If a customer has concerns, I want to figure out how to make it right."
In an ever-changing modern world, many industries have become obsolete. But Perri notes, "People still need heat. They need air conditioning. They need to be able to flush the toilet. It's a little like life stops until we can come in to solve the problem."
Changing industry technology, however, creates constant challenges for A.J. Perri's technicians to keep up. While the company employs a full-time in-house trainer, Perri said that a partnership formed with American Residential Services in 2014 - a company that operates in 22 states - has been helpful in overcoming that hurdle.
"It's a very innovative industry, so we partner with the companies that supply such items as thermostats and air conditioners, Carrier and Nest to name a few, to train our service representatives on the latest technological developments," Perri said. "That enables us to be on the same page when new technology and products come into the market."
Another challenge has been recruiting the best technicians – a critical part to maintaining high quality in customer service, as well as maintaining the company’s own reputation in the market. Yet, young students often have been conditioned to believe that only a four-year college degree leads to success – whether it’s the ideal path for everyone or not.
"We have a relationship with most of the technical schools in the area, but finding the right people is a challenge," Perri said. "It's not exactly glamorous to become a plumber when you're young - but the fact is, you can make a good living at it. I always say that once you learn a trade, they can never take it away."
The company originally was based in Middletown, and from a Central Jersey base it has expanded throughout the state. Perri said there is a current push into northern counties such as Bergen, Passaic, and Essex, while Burlington county also seem promising. Beyond that? Perri doesn't rule out expansion into New York and Pennsylvania someday - particularly given a new partnership with New York-based WABC-TV.
The latter deal has helped bring to video life, a crucial communication component in today's information age - a piece of the A.J. Perri Cares program that is close to the heart of founder Albert Perri and the rest of his family. Several times a year, a veteran in need is selected for the company to solve any heating, air conditioning, or plumbing problems.
Another family link is Kevin Perri's wife, Meeghan, whose work at Serenity Stables in Atlantic Highlands has led to A.J. Perri being a key partner for the stable. Horses at Serenity Stables are employed as "therapy animals" for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) - as well as others who can benefit from the horses' calm demeanor, such as troubled youth or senior citizens. Perri said the stable has needed extensive plumbing, excavation, and other infrastructure work, so his company stepped in to help.
A.J. Perri also participates in the American Cancer Society's Making Strides Against Breast Cancer Walk in Point Pleasant, has annual can drives to support the Fulfill food bank of Monmouth and Ocean counties, and is a sponsor of the Tim Tebow Foundation's Night to Shine program that provides a special prom experience for teens with special needs.
As for the Elvis connection?
"Dad says when he was in Germany, he once came across Elvis Presley, and he said he needed a can opener," Perri said. "Dad says he had an extra one, so he gave it to Elvis."
From can openers to air conditioning systems, the Perri family has been solving other people's problems for a half-century.